Premeditated conspiracy or accident? Differences of opinion over what caused the death of 59 people, mostly kar sevaks, aboard the Sabarmati Express in 2002 have hinged on this fundamental question. In convicting 31 people in the Godhra train burning case on the twin counts of murder and criminal conspiracy, the Ahmedabad special court has upheld the broad thrust of the prosecution's contention, which is that the deaths were a result of a “pre-planned conspiracy” to set fire to the S-6 coach in which the victims were travelling. The theory that it was an “accidental fire” gained credence after the Justice U.C. Banerjee Committee, appointed by then Railway Minister Lalu Prasad, declared it as such in its preliminary report. It ruled out various other possible causes, including the possibility of the fire being caused by petrol poured into the bogey by miscreants. Although the Gujarat High Court subsequently ruled that the U.C. Banerjee Committee was “unconstitutional, illegal, and void,” the question remained whether forensic evidence would conclusively establish how the fire was caused. In arriving at its verdict, the trial court was evidently greatly influenced by the findings of the Gandhinagar Forensic Science Laboratory (FSL), which concluded that petrol was the cause of the fire and submitted evidence that was consistent with the police theory that the culprits had forcibly entered the S-6 coach via the vestibule.
Paradoxically, the court acquitted the main alleged conspirator, Maulana Umarji, for lack of evidence, even as it upheld the prosecution's case that the conspiracy to set fire to the coach carrying the kar sevaks was hatched the previous night at a guest house in Godhra town. The verdict, which saw the acquittal of as many as 63 accused, is bound to be challenged by both sides. It is unfortunate that a case like this, tried by a fast-track court, should have taken nine years to complete, all the more so because many of the 63 acquitted spent years in prison after being denied bail. In the popular imagination, the Godhra train burning will also evoke horrifying memories of the genocidal pogrom against Muslims that earned Gujarat notoriety across India and round the world. The complex verdict must be looked at independently, in strictly legal terms, and not through any coloured political lens; it must certainly not be allowed to be exploited by demagogues of any communal persuasion. Only when the 815-page judgment becomes available will legal experts be able to assess the merits of the verdict, including the evidential basis of the convictions. Given the time already taken, it is important that we have a just and final judicial pronouncement on the case as quickly as possible.